25 June 2010

Local eats in Puebla

Taking you back to my first full day in Mexico last Saturday, I had an absolutely brain splitting headache that I imagine resulted from both the altitude (7,000 plus feet above sea level) and a terrible night's sleep after a very long day of travel. None the less, I was not going to let that stop me from trying some of the local delights. I did have to wait until well into the afternoon though!

First stop, a local craft and flower market. I had been walking around looking for a taqueria but ended up going in a direction that took me past a whole street of handmade furniture and then into this market, where I might add a variety of unique orchids were available from some somewhat sketchy looking individuals. Who knows if they were legal or not but they sure were amazing. Anyway, one thing I learned quickly is that any place that people are gathered for anything, there'll be some stand set up selling tacos or whatever. Some are a bit more sketchy than others but at the one end of the flower and craft market was a whole series of tents serving food.
So I bravely took my chance and had a couple of tostadas - no beans - with various sauces and a giant pineapple drink. It was delicious and cheap and the people were very nice. We tried to have a conversation but man, my Spanish is bad, and well, their English non-existent. But it was fine. I was able to just sit quietly and eat and drink as fast movement was not on the agenda for the day.

I walked around the city of Puebla a bit, sat in the zocalo (main square), and did a lot of people watching. It being Saturday, there were just tons of people out and about shopping, eating, just hanging out. It was great. But all the walking around made me peckish, of course, so I decided to head into one of the taquerias that I finally found. Again, I'm guessing because it was Saturday, everywhere was just packed. But I wanted to get my hands on a taco al pastor and I would not be denied. And I figured if the places were full of people that the food had to be good. So I ended up at place called Las Renas.
They bring you a sheet and you mark on what you want, which of course I had no idea. So I just watched what other tables were getting and pointed to them when the waiter came. So I ended up with taco called a 'gringa" which is a taco al pastor with cheese, cream, and onions and cilantro in a flour tortilla. Now what makes a taco al pastor is that the meat is cooked in the same fashion as a schwarma - on an upright spit - with spices and unlike the arab version which has onion and tomato on top, this has pineapple that drips its flavour into the meat as it cooks. The pineapple flavour is not really pronounced but the hint of it is noticeable. Nothing to say but this was absolutely deliciously fantastic!! I could have eaten fifty, well I couldn't have, but I wanted to!

Cooking school day 5, cooking like we mean it

Today was our last day in the kitchen so we had to make it count with a couple of star dishes: tamales and mole poblano. Both specialities of the Puebla area where Dona Estela's family is from.

On the menu for the last day:
-Tamales (and many sauces)
-Caldo de abas (fava bean soup)
-Suspiros de novia (sighs of the bride)
-Arroz con perejil (rice with parsley)
-Mole Poblano

We started off with a soup like every day and this one had a fava bean base. It's pretty light but being made of the blessed bean, my stomach was not up to it, so I didn't try it. My cooking companion Beverley however said it was excellent.

The supsiros de novia are like little deep fried pancakes that are smothered in a sugar syrup. The syrup is flavoured with lime and cinammon and is totally delicious. A little zest from the outside of the limes adds a bit of flair as well. We decorated with slices of limes from the tree in the backyard, which were more like regular limes than the little ones we used in the recipe. I had ot have a taste, of course, and man were they TART! But the smell was out of this world. Like with everything else this week, I had my nose in there first, It was a fiesta of the senses in the kitchen.

Next up was the mole poblano sauce with its many, many ingredients. My restaurant experience in Puebla a few days ago did not make me as keen as I once was to try this sauce but I held out hope that I would like the version we created more. And I did. My biggest issue with the first version of the mole poblano that I tried was that it was too sweet. I'm all kinds of keen to test out the chocolate in my savoury food but I don't want it to be sweet. This sauce had about 20 or so ingredients including garlic, ancho and mulato chiles, cinammon, cumin, cloves, onion, etc and of course chocolate. We used a big round of Nestle Abuelita, which is pretty widely available in Mexican and Latin grocery stores.

As you add it all together it becomes richer and darker as it cooks but I was happy that it didn't get to the almost-black syrupy texture of the other one I tried. We ate it with chicken, and I had seconds! Will for sure try this one again but it is so rich, it can't be eaten too frequently.

Now the tamales, they where a major operation. We made a bunch of different kinds so had all manner of sauces and jazz to make and use. We used some of the leftover tinga that we made a couple of days ago as well as some of the mole poblano that we'd just made. We also whipped up a green sauce with tomatillos and a red sauce with tomatoes and cheese. There was pork, chicken, and Oaxacan cheeese with epazote and slices of jalepeno. So it was a fun festival of fillings. But the trick to these magnificent tamales was the masa, which we did not make but was purchased fresh from a local store. It was light and fluffy and we used it in a much runnier texture than I realized. See, this is why you gotta go to the source for the tricks . . . it can't all be learned from books. Trick no. 2, after the fresh masa, is to take the salsas and essentially press a spoonful into the masa inside the corn husk as it'll keep the masa moist and you won't have dried out and difficult to swallow tamales. All I can say is they were absolutely fantastico and I think I might have eaten a dozen of them all by myself. All the fillings were good but the chicken and salsa verde as well as the tinga topped my list. Luckily there are leftovers to take on the road when I head for Mexico City.

Well that's it for the Mexican Home Cooking School adventure. It was a great learning experience from both the cooking and the cultural sides. We ended off our stay with a trip to the local mercado in Tlaxcala where I bought myself a comal so I'm ready to head back to Toronto and roast some tomatoes, garlic, and onion!! Stay tuned for a few more adventures in food from Mexico City, where I'm meeting J for a fun weekend of adventures.

23 June 2010

Cooking school day 4, let's stuff some chiles

Again as I sit to write, there are all manner of fireworks going off outside for no apparent reason. There are fireworks every night and during the day when you can't see anything but only hear them. To join in with the fun, church bells have just started ringing. It is after 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. There is no explanation.

So . . . on the menu today was:
- Sopa de tortilla
- Pork in adobe (we made it with lamb)
- Salsa de jitomate basica (basic tomato sauce)
- chiles rellenos
- chiles en nogada

The tortilla soup was excellent and is not milk based, which I'm all for in a soup. We made it with oyster mushrooms and seranno (fresh) and guajillo (dried) chiles. The guajillos give it a very deep and satisfying red colour. It's served with strips of tortillas that are sun dried (basically very stale) and then fried quickly to make them crispy. I would bake them in the oven but what's important is crispy strips!! Soup was good and spicy.
The only thing I know about adobe sauce is that you can buy canned chipotles that come in it. Well today we learned how to make it and who knew it's got a base of caramel. That's right, caramel. In addition, of course, there's cumin, oregano, garlic, tomato, apple cider vinegar, stock, ancho chiles, onion etc. The sauce comes out quite thick, which I like, and is sweet and sour. Being made with the anchos, it's not very hot either. The sauce can be used with all different types of meat including shrimp and other fish, so is quite flexible. We had it with lamb and fresh blue corn tortillas from a local tortillaria. Fantastic.
The main action of the day was reserved for the stuffed poblano chiles of which we made two kinds: chiles rellenos (stuffed with cheese and in a tomato sauce) and chiles en nogado (chiles stuffed with beef, almonds, and fruit in a creamy nut sauce). The process involves roasting the chiles, making the stuffing, stuffing the cleaned chiles, coating them in flour, making a batter with very fluffy egg whites later mixed with the yolks and a bit more flour, then frying them, and making a sauce to go with them.

The chiles en nogado are a traditional dish of the Puebla area and the sauce is usually made with walnuts, which are seasonal here. And as it ain't the season for them right now, we made the sauce with pecans. It's a no cook sauce that is basically nuts, crema, and milk all wazzed up. The rellenos are served with a tangy basic tomato sauce. I like them all right but they are lots of work and they are fried. Might try them at home baked instead but not sure. They are, I was told, a special occasion food.
After dinner tonight, I asked for a hot chocolate, which I have been dreaming about for days. It was super fantastic. No pictures, just know, it was fantastic. The Mexicans know from chocolate. Starbucks does not. Until tomorrow.. . .

22 June 2010

Cooking school day 3, fútbol & chipotles

Mexico was playing Uruguay today so technology had to be brought into the kitchen so I could listen to the game (Mexico lost but got through to the round of 16). Above before making our 7 dishes. Below, after making them.
On the menu today:
- Crema de chile poblano (cream of chile poblano soup).
- Frijoles negros
- Chipotles en conserva
- Tinga (shredded skirt steak)
- Pipian rojo with meat
- Sopes
- Guacamole (finally!!)

The cream of chile poblano soup is another relatively easy to make dish that comes out in a great colour. The trick we learned for this was not to roast the poblanos too much or else the flesh turns yellow and your soup doesn't get the great green colour. Just char the skin and make sure the flesh is still crispy. Clean all the black off the skin, again, to maintain the beautiful green colour. Charred skin will make it turn grey, which is not a nice colour for soup.
We made this conserve with chipotles that then went into the tinga recipe later. But it's basically a chipotle marmalade that keeps in the fridge for up to a year and is delicious on anything from sandwiches to tacos. One of the ingredients, which you can see in the middle of the pot (and which melts as you cook it) is piloncillo, raw Mexican sugar. Just let it cool and put in a bottle that's been boiled and you can keep for ages.
We added a few of the conserved chipotles to the skirt steak along with a bunch of chopped up tomatoes and such and it was the filling for the sopes that we had for lunch. To make sopes you use the same masa you would to make tortillas but they are smaller and thicker. Here you can buy pre-made masa just like we get pizza dough in the bag. Apparently it's the way to go but I'm not sure I will be able to find it back in old T.O. so may have to stick with the secondary option of using masa harina and not having them be quite as good. The sopes were topped with mashed black beans, the extremely delicious tinga, cheese, crema, lettuce, and a radish for good measure. Yum!

Guacamole was also finally created . . . made in the molcajete, it's quite a job but tastes fantastic. This version has serrano chile, tomatillos, 1 clove of garlic, cilantro, and salt. No lime, onion, or tomato. The tomatillo gives it a bit of crunch and also tartness. I could easily have eaten the whole bowl, which I'm sure will surprise no one.
Dinner was pipian rojo with meat and we used chilacayote, an ingredient that I had not used before, so there was rejoicing about that. It's basically a round zuke so can be interchanged.Now I don't think there are too many dishes that the Mexicans make that don't have some sort of sauce as a base and every sauce seems to emanate from the blender, which I dubbed the heart of the kitchen. So here's the kitchen workhorse with the fixin's for the pipian rojo, which uses both guajillo (so it's really red) and ancho chiles.
The sauce can be used with chicken, turkey, or pork as well as a vegetarian version using the chilacayote (which we added as well) or potatoes. Also very delicious. It was served with the black beans we made (of which I had only a few) and some crusty buns to soak up all the tasty sauce.
And sadly with all that . . . no dessert tonight :(

21 June 2010

Cooking school day 2, not everything's a winner

Day 2 dawned fne and sunny with one of the local volcanos spewing smoke, a sight I had not seen before, so double points for that!

On the menu today:
-Crema de flor de calbacitas (cream of squash blossom soup)
-Pipian verde con bistec en relleno (stuffed beef rolls in pipian verde sauce)
-Bistec en chile pasilla
-Arroz rojo (red rice)
-Gaznates rellenos de cream (cream filled pastry tubes)

Cooking with squash blossoms again was most excellent. We made a milk-based soup with it that also included poblano chiles, lots of garlic and onion as well as cheese. You blend the milk and squash blossoms to get a really pale orange liquid that is really pretty. The chiles and onions etc are not blended and give the whole soup a bit more texture but all still with a very delicate flavour. Not really spicy at all. Not sure if you can see the lovely colour in the picture but here it is. Tasted a lot better than it looks just sitting there in the bowl.
Our lunch main course was stuffed beef rolls in green sauce. The sauce was really like a big salad wazzed up in the blender and included spring onions, fresh lettuce, radish leaves, cilantro, epazote, tomatillos, and parsley. That was added in the pot to a puree of roasted pumpkin and sesame seeds with cumin and garlic. The stuffed rolls consisted of thin slices of beef rolled around slices of carrot, zuke, green beans and, for me, turkey ham. The beef rolls were simply added to the sauce and cooked for a while. Must say I think the rolls might have been a bit better if browned first and definitely if the whole thing had cooked longer. So far, my least favourite dish. It was served with the red rice, which while very tasty required more steps to make than I'm usually willing to put into rice.
The hit of the day was the beef in pasilla sauce. Pasillas are a dried chile and you toast them before making the sauce. The trick, I learned with the dried chiles, is not to toast them very long or they will make the sauce bitter. So it's just a few minutes, flip and then off the heat.
The sauce included roasted tomatoes and tomatillos (which were tiny and came from the garden in the back) as well as thyme, garlic and onions. Thin slices of steak and big chunks of potatoes were left to stew together and make beautiful music. The sauce got a bit spicier over the course of the day but a big slab of crusty bread to mop up what was left on the plate wouldn't have been out of place. This is definitely a make at home recipe.
Tonight we had another variation of the fried dough. This one was rolled like a cannoli and then filled with cream and topped with some mashed strawberries.

20 June 2010

Mexican Home Cooking School, Day 1

While I arrived in Tlaxcala at the Mexican Home Cooking School last night, this morning was the first day of classes, which as you may imagine started off with a quick primer on chiles - dried and fresh. There are many and this wasn't even all of 'em, just what was in the kitchen today.
On the menu for today - we cook the food for both our lunch and dinner every day.
- Sopa de Hongo (mushroom soup with nopales - cactus - poblano peppers, and squash blossoms
- Ensalad de Napolitas (cactus salad)
-Pollo Almendrado (almond chicken)
-Tortas de paps con espinaca (potato pancakes with spinach)
-Salsa roja en molcajete (red sauce in molcajete)
-Buñueolos (thin fried dough)
So any day that I can cook with an ingredient that I've not used before is a great day. Make that new ingredient a chile and that's double good. Today had new ingredient and new chile, so it was all manner of excellent.

I had cooked once before with cactus paddles but today learned a better way to do it (boiled not baked) and to clean them. The trick with the cleaning is to scrape in the same direction as the spikes, not against them. Faster and more efficient. Also less chance of getting spikes in your hands. So good lesson on that front. We also used squash blossoms in the soup, which I have not cooked with before. They're basically what you get before the zukes and pumpkins etc turn into veg. So if you want to cook with them, you have to give up the chance of having the zuke or pumpkin, which if you grow zukes and never know what to do with the bounty is a blessing in disguise. Here's the soup of the brew - it has squash blossoms, cactus, mushrooms, onion, garlic, roasted poblano peppers and more!

And the finished product at lunch:
Today's new chile was the cascabel, which we used to make a red salsa. Now with all salsa you roast the ingredients. For the most part I have done it in the oven but I think perhaps my new purchase here in Mexico is going to be a comal, which will let me do the roasting right on the stovetop as we did with the cascabels.
The tomatoes, onion and garlic were also roasted in such a fashion and then all mashed up together in the traditional mortar and pestle of Mexico known as a molcajete, which is special because it's made of volcanic rock. It's a lot more work than making salsa in a blender, that's for sure.

And the potato/spinach pancake (which is really like a mini quajodo to those who know that is) with cactus salad and salsa rojo at lunch - this is an all vegetarian meal for those keeping track of such things:

Dinner was the pollo almendrado, which unusually for Mexican food had cloves in it, which our teachers Jon and Estela say comes from the Arab influence in this area. The almonds, along with dried bread, are used to thicken the sauce so it has a very creamy texture without any cream. Good for the low fat and kosher diets! The sauce also includes dried serrano chiles, cinnamon, and roasted tomatoes (cue the comal!) As we made it in the morning, it sat all day so the flavours could get to know each other better. It was much smoother and deeper in flavour by dinner time.

The day finished off with buñelos, which again may be recognizable to some as pitikas. These were dough rolled out really thinly then fried in very hot oil for a few seconds and doused in vanilla sugar. Crispy and delicious.
Thank you and good night!

First meal in Mexico

After 15 hours or so of travelling by plane, car, and bus, I finally arrived in Puebla, Mexico. Everything was pretty excellent and smooth except for a headache, which I think was due mainly to the altitude - Mexico City is at 7,200 ft above sea level. So the whole thing left me a bit breathless, literally, but otherwise quite excited to see it all.

The first meal of the trip was actually BBQ in the airport in Houston, which wasn't too bad. The sliced brisket was a bit salty but still better than anything available in Toronto! The potato salad had not too much mayo and a hint of mustard and the place, Pappas Bar-B-Q, also had a great cucumber salad which is unusual for a BBQ joint and was perhaps my favourite part of the meal. Topped it all off with sweet tea and I was good to go for the rest of the day.

By the time I arrived in Puebla, some six or eight hours later, I was ready for my first Mexican meal. I had sussed out some restaurants before leaving Toronto and was glad of it as I was tired and pleased to already have my destination picked out so I wasn't messing around trying to figure out where to eat. Mesones Sacristia was one of the places where I'd been looking at going to cooking school but decided against. However, I was intrigued by their menu, so made it my first stop for a Mexican meal. I arrived at about 8:30, which is apparently quite early for dinner and was the lone diner in the pink courtyard (which has hotel rooms above it).
No worries, everyone was very nice and I stumbled through with my not-so-excellent Spanish. As it caters to tourists, though, the restaurant thankfully had a menu in English, so I didn't have to sit there like a dweeb with my dictionary figuring out what everything was. So I started off with quesadillas with Oaxan cheese and squash blossoms because I just wanted to eat squash blossoms and that was the menu choice. They were fantastic. Came with a little bowl of guacamole as well as the fresh and tomatillo salsas that come to the table. Alone they were excellent. Smothered in the guac and tomatillo salsa, even better. Not much too look at but really great.
Puebla is the home of mole poblano, the complex sauce made with chocolate and served usually over chicken. I was keen to try it but there were also a few other moles on the menu, one a speciality of the house made with chipotles (oh how I adore thee) and red and green pipian which are nut-baseed. I wanted to try them all and luckily for me, they had a combo platter.

No vegetables in sight (well there were two slices of radish) but a good helping of all four. I found that, not surprisingly, I enjoyed the house special chipotle-based mole the best. I thought the mole poblano would be bitter but it was actually quite sweet and I found it a bit too cloying and heavy even in the small portion that I had. Enjoyed both the green and red pipian. None of them were particularly spicy so tried a few in the hot, fresh corn tortillas that came with it sprinkled with some of the salsas, also very tasty but I really couldn't eat too many tortillas, it was just too much.

There was no room for dessert, so no report on that end. Overall, not sure how I'm feeling about moles. I do hope we'll learn to make one while at the cooking school but they seem to be very complex to create without the taste punch that I would have expected.

16 June 2010

This is not pizza

Tonight we went to a little shindig at the law society and afterwards just decided to grab a quick bite before heading home. There's a place on Yonge Street across from the Eaton Centre called the 3 Brewers (it's 3 Brasseurs in most of the French world where the restaurant chain has most of its outlets) that we had been thinking about going for a while. Since we were down there without any other solid plan, we gave it a go. There was a promise of something better than pizza.

It's called a flamm. This "tarte flambee" is better than a pizza, they claim, and from Alsace. Well who wouldn't want to try something billed as better than a pizza as pizza is already such a great thing. As the name would suggest, it is a brew pub so I ordered a half pint of their wheat beer, which was pretty good. It starts off with quite a sweet hit but then settles in. Never bitter though, which is important to me being the big beer drinker that I am. We also ordered a couple of flamms. J had a bacon, raclette, and onion one and I had smoked meat and gruyere topped with pickles (not cooked, I had to check).

Basically what ye olde flamm is is a thin oven baked flatbread, topped with a bit of cream (which you can barely see or taste) and then the cheese and other toppings. It's pretty crispy and tasty but I wouldn't go as far as to say it's better than pizza. I think it's more a something that would work cut up into squares and served as an appetizer rather than as the whole event. Not bad, not particularly ground breaking but we've tried a new place, which I always feel good about.

The 3 Brewers Restaurant Micro-Brewery on Urbanspoon

14 June 2010

Sporty snacks

The World Cup is upon us and that, of course, calls for snacks. And why not mix our love of sport with the love of Mexican food. On Friday night, I made a roast turkey breast in this fantastic New Mexico chile/citrus marinade -- no pix so no blogging about it :(. There were leftovers, so what better use for them than some nachos that also used up the remaining corn tortillas and a bunch of queso fresco that were in the fridge.

One of the things I like to do when we buy whole bags of tortillas is to use them up by cutting them into 6 triangles and baking them in the oven. I just shake them up in a bag with some salt and chile powder or whatever then put them in a 400F oven on the pizza stone for 10 or so minutes. That gives us low fat but delightfully crispy tortilla chips.

Anywho with those in hand, J and each built our own pile of nachos. Mine included said chips, a couple of other chipotle tostadas broken up, some light cheddar, some queso fresco, chopped green onions, red pepper, green onions, and canned green chiles (one of J's faves that I'd never tried before), and of course some turkey. All baked in the oven for about 10 minutes then topped with some daubs of the creamy green homemade guacamole. Oh yeah!

J had a similar conconcotion but added black beans and some rice (more excellent leftover usage). That and a cold Diet Coke and you're made in the shade for some footie-watching fun. Although kudos must go out to our friends who hosted the England-USA game the day before and had soccer-themed cupcakes, lots of cheesy and dippy treats, and a great decorating spirit.

09 June 2010

Welcome back oh beautiful chick pea

This may be in the realm of too much information but stomach troubles have recenetly kept me from eating the beautiful chick pea. Well things are better and I was feeling brave so decided I wanted to have a go with the garbanzos. I had been looking through the cookbook from Vij's Indian restaurant in Vancouver realizing that we'd only ever made one thing out of it -- the lamb popsicles (which are lamb but not frozen, just creamy and a real treat for the tastebuds!) A recipe for a green onion and chick pea curry was found near the back of the book and it looked relatively simple and piqued my interest. So I did it. And it was excellent, easy, and fast. It's made with coconut milk but I used a low fat version so felt virtuous about the whole thing.

And as I may have mentioned, never will there be only one veg curry at a time. There was a load of green beans in the fridge crying out to be used, so I made one of my favourite Indian side dishes which I have been making for years and I think may have originally come from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking.

Basically you take a whole lotta green beans and clean the ends off. Then put them in a frying pan that has just enough boiling water to cover the beans and a teaspoon or so of tumeric in the water. Boil them for a few minutes until tender crisp then drain and put aside. In the frying pan, heat up a bit of oil and when hot toss in a teaspoon or so of black mustard seeds. Add 1/2 a chopped up chile (either dried or fresh), a few pinches of unsweetened shredded coconut, the beans, a bit of salt and fry for a few minutes until the beans are a bit crispy. Lovely.

Put it all on a plate with some rice and a colourful, quick, and not too spicy Indian vegetarian meal is ready to be enjoyed.

07 June 2010

The first fruits of the season

We are once again signed up for a veggie box from our friends at Coopers CSA Farm in Zephyr, Ontario! Last week we got our first box, which included thyme, sage, oregano, russet potatoes, lettuce, and asparagus. J had a craving for potato salad so I boiled up the taters and served up some salad borne of my mother's recipe, which, in my opinion is the best in the world. I shall share it, because I'm that kind of a gal!

Cut up some potatoes into 1/2" squares - as much or as little as you want -and boil them until tender. Depending on the potato, I usually don't peel the skin off but in this case, it was necessary.

Finely chop an onion (which will be enough for a salad for about 6-8 people, use a half if you're making less). Chop a whack of parsley. I use probably about 1/3 to 1/2 of a cup for 6-8.

Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them and put hot into a bowl. Right away, squeeze at least half a lemon over it and add about 1/4-1/3 cup of plain vegetable oil, canola is best. Add two teaspoons salt (or to taste), the parsley, and onion and gently mix it up. It should be good and lemony, so add to taste. It's best if it sits in the fridge to cool for an hour or two before serving.

It was most delicious and made with parsley from my indoor herb garden and the beautiful potatoes from the farm. As such, it was part of a fantastic little "we don't have a bbq but we're still going to eat like we have one meal" that had a bit of steak and corn on the cob to round it out.


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